|Frank Wright, Ph.D.
President & CEO
The preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us that of making many books there is no end. He could easily have been talking about leadership books, for the literature of leadership is immense and ever growing. Personally, however, I find many of these books of marginal value. This is particularly true of many of the leadership books we find in the corporate world.
My principal complaint with scores of these books is that they focus on methods, devices, and tactics that can be employed to get people to do what we want them to do. In short, the focus is on manipulation of people to achieve some end. This approach is typified by a quote usually attributed to a former U.S. president, who said: Leadership is the ability to get men to do what they don’t want to do and getting them to like it. When the end in view is a good one, we might rightly ask: Where is the harm in that? Well, in such cases, perhaps there is no real harm. Yet something important is lost when we confuse manipulation with leadership.
It is often said that the secret of true leadership is, quite simply, . . . to lead. Jesus said: Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. He did not point the way giving mere direction; he commanded us to follow him. So if leaders are to get people to follow, the threshold question becomes: how are we to lead?
Samuel Johnson, one of the most quoted men of the 18th century, put it well when he said a leader is by passion, by conviction, and by unswerving determination, a man who bears in his life both the most tangible and intangible qualities of heart and mind and flesh.
In Johnson’s words we find the element missing from the majority of leadership books. Yes, leadership is about what we do, but vastly more important is what we are. Yes, leadership is embodied in vision and action but the sine qua non of leadership is character and virtue. People will follow based on the things you do, but they will not likely follow far if the things you do are not closely matched with who you are as a man or woman. Character matters. In questions of leadership, it matters more than anything else.
On of my favorite leadership books is David Vaughan’s The Pillars of Leadership, in which he addresses this very matter. Vaughan says: It is not primarily what a man does, but what he is – not his impact, but his character. He also quotes two of America’s great leaders on this very point.
Teddy Roosevelt put it memorably:
Before a man can discipline other men, he must demonstrate his ability to discipline himself. Before he can be allowed the command of commission, he must evidence command of character. Look then to the work of his hands. Hear the words of his mouth. By his fruit you shall know him.
Dwight Eisenhower echoed those thoughts when he said:
In order to be a leader, a man must have followers. And to have followers, a man must have their confidence. Hence the supreme quality for a leader is unquestionable integrity. Without it no real success is possible . . . If a man’s associates find him guilty of being phony, if they find that he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail. His teachings and actions must square with each other. The first great need, therefore, is integrity and high purpose.
All of this, of course, begs an important question: How is it with us? Do our lives bear in them the most tangible and intangible qualities of heart and mind and flesh? By the grace of God, NRB is an association filled with men and women of character. The example of their lives speak to us day by day. But the issue at hand is our character, individually.
To that end I offer you a three-point checklist: humility, obedience, and service. From these wellsprings comes the virtue that empowers genuine leadership. The Apostle Paul said as much when he pointed us to the only true Leader who ever lived:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3-11).
Humility, obedience, and service – these are the footprints of the Master. And in those footprints we find the true secret of leadership. If we hope to be leaders that others will follow, we too must walk in them. May God by His Spirit help us as we do!